BY Ana Tuazon in Opinion | 15 SEP 20
Featured in
Issue 214

Breaking the Art World's ‘Closed Circle’

Emerging alternative spaces led by artists of colour leave a stagnant gallery system behind 

BY Ana Tuazon in Opinion | 15 SEP 20

It’s easy to forget how recently artists of colour gained real visibility in the art world, and how hard they had to fight for it. Only three decades ago, in 1987, Howardena Pindell delivered her pivotal report, ‘Art (World) & Racism’, at Hunter College in New York, demonstrating that the US art world – ‘museums, galleries, auction houses, collectors, critics and art magazines’ – was complicit in systemic racism, operating as a ‘closed circle’ that largely excluded artists of colour. 

The result of such discriminatory conditions was the creation of a parallel world of alternative cultural spaces in the 1960s and ’70s – such as Basement Workshop and Just Above Midtown in New York and Gallery 32 in Los Angeles – which offered opportunities for exhibitions, publishing and professional development alongside a support network. These were some of the earliest platforms in the US where artists of colour could engage in wider conversations on racial and social justice by drawing on their own lived experiences – a vital model for today’s POC-led spaces. 

BUFU (By Us For Us), 2019. Courtesy: BUFU (By Us For Us)

The legacy of these earlier projects has informed a new generation of creators who use the internet to redefine the very concept of ‘alternative space’. In New York, BUFU (By Us For Us) and The Black School have used social-media platforms to thrive outside of an art-world establishment that still resists deep structural change, despite giving the appearance of inclusivity. When the COVID-19 lockdown began in the US, major museums struggled to find ways to engage their audiences online. BUFU, on the other hand, immediately launched a programming series called CLOUD 9 (Collective Love On Ur Desktop), publishing a 15-day workshop schedule via Instagram. Topics included filing for unemployment, Caribbean women’s literature and the end of capitalism. 

BUFU was founded in 2015 by a queer, femme and non-binary collective: Sonia Choi, Jazmin Jones, Jiun Kwon, Tsige Tafesse and Katherine Tom. The group previously experimented with connecting audiences across physical and virtual spaces during their 2019 WYFY School, which they defined as an ‘alternative, decentralized, peer to peer, queer af, collaboratively built, free summer school made With You & For You’. Free classes, which could be proposed and attended by anyone, were held online as well as at community spaces and gardens across the city. While the WYFY School promoted itself with techno-utopian language (‘we are decentralizing the brick and mortar’), BUFU’s image of the future couldn’t be further from that of Silicon Valley. ‘We are building an embodied and distributed knowledge,’ they wrote on Instagram, ‘One that validates by relation, by personal and intimate history. One shaped by the hands it feeds.’

Basement Workshop
Theatre rehearsal at Basement Workshop, New York, 1972. Courtesy: A/P/A Institute, New York; photograph: Legan Wong

The Black School founders, Joseph Cuillier III and Shani Peters, began developing a three-part ‘ecosystem’ of programming around Black love and self-determination in 2016, encompassing an itinerant art school, a design firm that offers paid apprenticeships to young people of colour and an annual art and music festival called Black Love Fest. Recently, Cuillier and Peters have raised funds to build The Black Schoolhouse: a centre for radical Black art education in New Orleans, Cuillier’s hometown. The histories that inspired the project will be included in its planned curriculum: the civil rights-era Freedom Schools initiated in 1963 by Charles Cobb, an activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; the Black Panther Party’s ‘survival programmes’ of the 1970s; and, most notably, the nearly 5,000 schools for Black youth built in the early 20th century by local communities using architectural plans and grants provided by Booker T. Washington and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Cuillier and Peters intend to emulate Washington’s approach by publishing their plans for The Black Schoolhouse, in the hope that others will use them to build their own (autonomous) spaces for radical Black education. As Peters explained, when I spoke to her recently: ‘Sharing our blueprints, literally and figuratively, sharing our curriculum and sharing our process is a form of mutual aid.’ After exploring traditional funding avenues with limited success, Cuillier and Peters started a GoFundMe campaign in late June, which quickly received hundreds of shares and over US$150,000 in donations – proving that online allyship can actually produce tangible results.

The Black School
Black Love Fest HTX, 2019. Courtesy: The Black School

The historic importance of creative communities established by and for people of colour has long been underrecognized by the art establishment. Still, some of the artists who led and exhibited with Basement Workshop, Just Above Midtown and Gallery 32 found success in the art world’s ‘closed circle’ – once it opened up. In 2019, Hilarie Sheets, writing in The New York Times, announced that ‘older African American artists are suddenly a hot commodity’, describing Pindell’s decision to sign with Garth Greenan, a Chelsea gallerist, in 2014, as her ‘breakthrough’. But this assessment only reflects how narrow the art world’s understanding of artistic validation still is; it’s dismal that an artist with a lifetime of cultural contributions is defined by market interest. For many young artists of colour, seeking inclusion within this system is no longer urgent. Now, alternative cultural spaces are less concerned with exhibitions and more with pedagogy; mutual aid has taken priority over sales. They are ready, as BUFU writes on Instagram, ‘to snatch [their] tongues back from thieves in ivory towers’, to dismantle the divisions between art, knowledge production and civic engagement, to lead a revolution of ideas through relationships, not objects. In the words of The Black School: ‘The school is the artwork.’ 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 214 with the headline ‘Schools of Thought’.

Main image: Courtesy: The Black School

Ana Tuazon is a writer and curator. She is a 2020–21 critic-in-residence for the Core Program, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA.